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Meet the King of Parent Fundraisers

Rich, connected and controversial, Jeff Bickerstaff is perfecting the "business" of fundraising for public schools.

Judith Ince 6 Oct 2004TheTyee.ca
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Sitting in a Point Grey café, Jeff Bickerstaff could be any neighbourhood dad sipping coffee after delivering his kids to school. Except, perhaps, for his Rolls Royce parked outside. The sky blue car is a flashy advertisement for the wealth commanded by Bickerstaff, who owns an island with landing pad for his own helicopter.

Bickerstaff, who earned a fortune making marine fittings and leasing helicopters, lately has made a reputation, too, as king of parent fundraisers for public schools.

While controversy grows over whether private fundraising is widening the class divide in classrooms, Bickerstaff has used his business acumen and personal connections to transform the Parent Advisory Council (PAC) at Queen Mary Elementary into a fundraising powerhouse.

New pressure to fundraise

Thirty years ago, parents shelled out for “extras” like playground gear.  Now, however, PACs—the heir to the PTA—are selling everything from chicken parts to wrapping paper to pay for basics like textbooks, microscopes, and computers. 

Nowhere has the bar been raised higher than at Queen Mary, where a “direct ask” drive aims to get $100 from every family, and the annual gala is held at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club.

Critics say the aggressive fundraising of the Queen Mary PAC masks erosion of public funding for education and helps creates a two-tiered system.  And because donations to PACs are tax deductible, they say, it’s sucking money out of government coffers.

But Bickerstaff isn’t buying any of this, and instead looks for new ways to bag more dough for his school.

‘Like a business’

Short and tanned, Bickerstaff enthusiastically talk of interest rates, advertising and bank accounts with occasional waves to parents he recognizes in the long cappuccino queue. Retired, Bickerstaff says he works as many hours for the PAC as most people do in full-time jobs.

Old-fashioned fundraisers like bake-sales are no longer equal to the task of restocking the depleted resource shelves of schools, he says. The future wealth of PACs lies with techniques used by non-profit professionals. Bickerstaff says his PAC is “run like a business.”  

Bickerstaff chaired his PAC for the past two years, and hatched the plan for the direct-ask campaign last June.  He hopes to rake in $30,000 with the “QM Benefits” campaign: each of the school’s 300 families has been asked to voluntarily give a tax-deductible donation of $100. The proceeds will buy library books, ESL materials, software, globes, calculators, PE equipment, sheet music, novel sets, and new textbooks for math, science and social studies. For high wage earners, as many families are at Queen Mary, the tax write-off is appealing.

Queen Mary principal Bill Barrie endorsed the drive in a letter sent home with students on the first day of school.

Campaign draws fire

But the drive has drawn fire from some parents and pundits. Columnist Allen Garr suggested in the Courier that the Queen Mary direct-ask appears to contravene the School Act that says students must be provided educational resources free of charge. He wondered if the campaign might be illegal. Columnist Paul Willcocks fretted about educational apartheid in the Vancouver Sun, saying that “in B.C., a family's ability to pay is increasingly becoming a factor in determining just what kind of education their children receive.”

Patti Bacchus, whose two children attend Queen Mary, shares these concerns. "All the parent fundraising in the world won't reduce waiting lists for psycho-educational assessments, increase support for special needs kids, increase library staffing or reduce class sizes. It's naive and shortsighted to think you can solve the education funding crisis by throwing galas and tossing in parent cash."

Bacchus also raises questions about how the direct-ask campaign came into being. "This latest donation campaign came without any prior discussion or vote at a PAC meeting.  This is so alarming to me. In the past, PAC affairs were run democratically and parents felt welcome to discuss ideas and express their opinions and decisions were made by a vote. Now things are decided behind closed doors and parents who disagree with those decisions are written off as 'negative.'  It might be an efficient way to make money, but it's not how PACs should operate."

Bickerstaff defends his direct drive, saying that “it’s all about the kids,” and parents should contribute whatever they can.

‘Back-door privatization’

A survey by the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils in the late 1990s found that PACs contributed $30 million directly to schools each year. Terri Watson, the president of the association, estimates this amount has grown considerably since then, but until a survey is completed next year, actual numbers are unavailable. 

Jinny Sims, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, says she worries that schools are developing a dependence on parent-raised funds, calling the trend “privatization through the back door” which skews a system meant to educate all equally.

Bickerstaff appears bewildered by this kind of criticism.  “You don’t see everybody bitching and moaning about hospitals, right?  ‘Oh you shouldn’t fundraise for hospitals, government should supply the money.’  The minute you do it for a school—and the government should supply the money there too—everybody moans.”

‘This is not political’

At Queen Mary, the moaners are simply opposed to the current Liberal government, Bickerstaff says. “Schools have been cut back on their funding, their books and resources when the NDP were in,” he argues, but parents didn’t complain then.

“It’s a political issue with these people,” he says. “It’s all political, it’s all about them.  It’s not about kids.”  PACs and politics must never mix, he says. “This is not a political organization, we’re not into politics. Take your politics to the voting station; take it somewhere else. So we’ve cut all that out.” 

One parent committee cut under Bickerstaff’s leadership was focused on raising awareness of education cuts and advocating for public education. The committee was “a duplication of the PAC’s mandate," according to minutes of the meeting where the committee was killed.

Bacchus, who chaired the cancelled committee, said she “was astonished when Jeff announced to me that it had been abolished. Since then, the message I've received is that if you're not helping the PAC with fundraising, you're not helping and you're not welcome. Parents who object to the PAC-as-a-business model have stopped participating. This aggressive approach to fundraising has been terribly divisive for the parent community."

Pulling in $2,000 a day 

Julianne Doctor has been watching the Queen Mary kerfuffle from across the city, where she chairs the Grandview/?Uuqinak'uuh Elementary PAC and sits on the executive of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council.  She says it’s understandable that, in these lean times for public funding, parents contribute more money out of their own pockets.  But Doctor notes that Grandview/?Uuqinak'uuh has a high number of aboriginal, special needs, and poor students, whose families scramble to meet basic needs. The fundraising playing field is wildly uneven, she says, but parents at Queen Mary “don’t get it that it’s fundamentally wrong.”

Maureen Bayless, the co-founder of Save Our Schools, a group that lobbies for better school funding, says students’ needs across the city are going unmet, no matter where they go to school, so it’s unfair to single out Queen Mary for criticism. "We need to have compassion for each other, as we are as we are all standing fearfully around the same dry well." 

Bickerstaff is unfazed.  He says the flurry of media attention has stimulated parents to open up their wallets to the tune of almost $2,000 a day. “You know I’ve had many, many parents phone me up and say, ‘100 bucks, you should’ve asked for 500 bucks.’  And we get lots of $500 donations.”  Bickerstaff claims the drive has produced more than $15,000 already.

Yacht club gala

As he talks money, and how to make it, Bickerstaff’s words tumble out faster and faster.  He has a scheme to raise money by buying $20,000 worth of grocery certificates from the major chains, and then selling them to parents, generating a cut from the grocers. His ebullience grows when he describes a project he initiated two years ago, the annual Queen Mary Gala. Galas are a standard fixture of private school fundraisers. Bickerstaff  adapted the model to Queen Mary, seeing a chance “to raise some money, but also have a community-building event.”

Held at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club, a posh setting with spectacular views of English Bay and the North Shore mountains, the evening brought in bundles of cash.  “It was great!” Bickerstaff grins. “We raised about 12,000 to 15,000 bucks.” 

In the months before the event, however, Bickerstaff worried that it might be hard to sell 120 tickets at $95 a pop, so he wanted a keynote speaker with celebrity draw. He enticed his friend the premier, Gordon Campbell.

“Everybody was thrilled to death with that,” he recalls, because Campbell not only lived in the neighbourhood, but also “went to school there, his kids went to school there.”  

Before Campbell’s debut at the gala, however, Bickerstaff faced challenges.

Campbell keynote opposed

Parents weren’t as eager to spend big as he had hoped, he recalls. “Remember, the mindset of a public school parent is different than a private school parent,” Bickerstaff says. “The public school parent pays their taxes and thinks that should cover the public school, and they’re probably right. It should. It doesn’t.” This perspective means that public school parents see silent auctions as a chance to get a bargain price on any bauble they purchase. But at private schools, “the mentality there, it’s what makes the private school work so well for the parents,” he says. “They go to an auction and they’re proud to pay $200 dollars more than a cup’s worth.”

Some parents also labeled the event elitist. “The negative side got involved,” Bickerstaff explains. They pressed him on Premier Campbell’s attendance: “‘How could you invite somebody to help raise money when he’s the one doing the cutting?’”

In the end, Bickerstaff canned the premier’s speech.  “I didn’t want to tear the community apart over this nonsense, which it really was.  I mean when you get a chance to have the premier come to your school to speak, don’t politicize it.”

‘Money isn’t everything’

Although his clothes don’t suggest a multi-millionaire—Hilfiger golf shirt, casual pants, and a fleece jacket—Bickerstaff frequently refers to the accoutrements of his wealth.  There’s the island he owns off Galiano Island where he has a home, guest cottage, boathouse with 15 small vessels, and dock. He flies to the island from his Vancouver residence in his private helicopter. He plays hockey twice a week at the exclusive Arbutus Club. 

If Bickerstaff freely discusses his assets with a reporter, he’s also quick to say that he tells his two children: “Money isn’t everything.”

Public school helps his children grasp this concept, Bickerstaff says, because unlike private schools, Queen Mary exposes them to a cross-section of people and helps them “to be grounded.  I always think my kids are a bit spoiled with the lucky lot in life they happened to have got. I don’t want them thinking that they’re better than anyone else.”

He ends with an anecdote. “The kids were on the beach one time and one of my friend’s kids, I hear him saying, ‘Well my dad’s rich.  We own a bunch of gas stations and some property here and here.’ 

“And my kid pipes up and says, ‘We’re rich too, you know.’

“So I walked over to them, and I said, ‘Guess what, kids? You’re both poor. You have no money.  We’re rich.”  Bickerstaff points to himself, and chuckles.

Judith Ince is on staff at The Tyee.   [Tyee]

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